In my last column (July 15, “Towards inclusive governance”, goo.gl/Khrvze), I wrote on India’s governance challenge, in terms of the skills and organisational deficits within the government. This is pertinent to the new government’s push to address the entire country’s enormous skills deficit. The approach so far has the danger of being more form than substance. Creating a department of skill development at the national level (soon after it came to power) probably made sense, though tagging entrepreneurship to that goal seemed unnecessary. Converting this department into a ministry, as was done just a few months later, defied logic. Skill development is part of human resource development, for which an entire ministry already exists. Of course, that ministry is relatively dysfunctional, but keeping skill development separate will not solve the problems of dysfunction in delivering basic education to India’s masses, and those problems will only make skill development harder.
Another indicator of problems in India’s approach is the talk of making skills-training a fundamental right. There is considerable irony in this proposal. Education has already been made a fundamental right, without bringing the reality any closer to the ideal. Students go through years of schooling without acquiring basic literacy and numeracy. Teaching in government schools has become simply a rent-collection activity for many who are thus employed.
Furthermore, while basic literacy and numeracy can be measured and standardised, what constitutes “skill acquisition” is almost impossible to put on that footing. Will the government or the courts decide what constitutes minimum levels of skills for hundreds, if not thousands, of different kinds of occupations?
A related idea, that of skills universities, promises further dysfunction. When the average quality of Indian universities leaves much to be desired (despite the strong reputation of the top tier), and vocational training in the form of Industrial Training Institutes has been ineffective, combining the two into skills universities seems to be a confused approach. In government announcements, there is no indication of what these universities will do, although it seems likely that they are meant to mimic the approach of the TeamLease Skills University set up in Vadodra, Gujarat. Chairman Manish Sabharwal knows what he is doing in the case of that organisation, but it is not clear that the central government can successfully imitate or replicate such an effort on a national scale, with or without TeamLease.
At the opposite end of the education spectrum, as already noted, many of India’s children never make it to the point that they can qualify for any kind of post-secondary education. Skilling is irrelevant without basic schooling.
Recently, professor Karthik Muralidharan, who has examined many of the problems of India’s primary education system, and highlighted the lack of attention to actual learning outcomes by educational policymakers, has been working with state governments to experiment with ways of improving the functioning of government schools. One of his experiments involved contract teachers, who might be nominally less qualified and less well paid than regular teachers, but whose involvement improved outcomes.
To get around the problem of resistance to contract teachers, and to address the lack of skills or aptitude of those who might be potential teachers, Muralidharan plans to pilot what is essentially a teacher apprenticeship programme in rural government schools. The danger is that those doing the mentoring will be teachers who themselves have been conditioned by the dysfunctional system, and so may impart a distorted set of skills to the apprentices. On the other hand, this idea raises another interesting possibility. India’s government school system has the virtue of being extensive, even though it does not work well. Hence, it could prove to be a useful training ground for young rural Indians, especially women, to acquire what economists call general human capital. Note that this is quite different from specific human capital, on which much of the skilling rhetoric and effort focuses.
In the case of primary school teaching, specific human capital pertains mostly to pedagogical techniques. On the other hand, general human capital, which is common across different occupations, includes working in a team, being able to communicate, adhering to deadlines, and so on. There are few opportunities for young Indians, even among the elite, to develop these kinds of skills. In countries such as the US, on the other hand, internship programmes for college students are pervasive. While I cannot imagine Indian companies providing internships to many of the graduates of Indian universities, someone who has gone through four years of a teaching apprenticeship programme might seem like a safer bet to these companies. This model will not build specific human capital such as technical skills, but it will develop general human capital, in the form of generic job skills, in a low-cost and low-risk manner.
Paradoxically, the risk is low because the schools where these generic skills can be developed are doing such a bad job that apprentices cannot do any harm —as long as those with pathologies are kept out. In this case, there is an opportunity for synergies between schooling and skilling young Indians, in a way that has not yet been attempted in this country.
The author is professor of economics, University of California, Santa Cruz